Municipal documents expose shameful plan to keep citizens in the dark on public consultation on forest reserve

Freedom-of-information documents reveal that the Municipality of North Cowichan deliberately withheld important information on reasons for a 60-day pause in public consultation on the future of the Municipal Forest Reserve.

 

Documents obtained by sixmountains.ca include a July 15, 2020, email from Megan Jordan, the municipality’s communications and public engagement manager, to Megan Turnock of Vancouver-based consultants, Lees and Associates, explaining that council had voted unanimously for a 60-day pause on public engagement on the forest reserve. 

 

Jordan writes: “The reasons are two-fold: one, to allow for a meeting with the Cowichan Nation Alliance to better understand their interests; two, to accommodate public concern over the engagement process.

 

“There was a large increase in emails from the public asking Council to pause the engagement process due to concerns today.”

 

Jordan finishes her email to Turnock thus: “Public messaging about the pause will follow shortly, and will only speak to FN (First Nations) consultation as a cause at this time.”

 

In other words, the municipality preferred to bury citizens’ valid concerns about the public consultation process.

 

The email is copied to consultant Erik Lees, municipal forester Shaun Mason, and University of BC forestry professor Stephen Sheppard, who is working with the municipality on a management strategy for the forest reserve.

 

Indeed, a written public statement issued by Mayor Al Siebring two days later, on July 17, makes no mention of the 18 letters received from the public at the July 15 council meeting, no mention of a July 13 article (https://bit.ly/3bHRgsM) by the watchdog group Where Do We Stand urging suspension of the consultation, and no mention that public concerns factored into the 60-day pause.

 

Siebring’s statement, instead, said that Council had enacted the pause to facilitate a government-to-government consultation with local First Nations. 

 

“I feel it is important that we respect the Indigenous right to self-governance and consult local First Nations in a meaningful way,” he said. “Pausing public engagement will allow us to fully understand the issues and interests of local First Nations, which could potentially change the scope and scale of the public engagement process.”

 

There’s more.

 

The freedom-of-information documents also contain three pages of advice from Alan Dolan, a consultant and former communications director with the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, suggesting what North Cowichan’s “key messages” should be on the 60-day pause and offering a series of sample questions and answers on the issue.

 

One question he anticipates: “There has been a call to halt the public engagement process because it needs ‘fixing.’ Is that one of the reasons why you are pausing engagement?”

 

He suggests the following answer: “No, the reason for halting the public engagement process has to do with the concerns of First Nations related to the need for consultations to come early in the engagement process and the need for the North Cowichan to meet with the Chiefs of Cowichan Nation Alliance.”

 

Dolan goes on to say that while the meetings with First Nations are not public, “open, transparent public communication is also (a) very important part of the process.”

 

On July 17, Jordan sent a copy of Dolan’s suggestions to Chief Administrative Officer Ted Swabey for sign-off before sending to Siebring, according to the documents.

 

That’s not the end of it.

 

On July 20, three days after Siebring issued his statement, sixmountains.ca emailed the Mayor asking some basic questions about the separate consultation process involving First Nations — since the public had been kept in the dark.

 

The documents show that Siebring then sent an email to three municipal employees — Jordan, Swabey, and executive assistant Terri Brennan — saying: “Not even sure we want to respond. But if we do, I’d appreciate some suggestions.”

 

Jordan responds: “I have some draft speaking notes with Ted for review, we are working to get you some lines as soon as possible.”

 

Shortly thereafter, Jordan provides Siebring with a “draft reply,” noting that “Ted has reviewed and signed off on the key messages….”

 

The response begins “Hello Mr. Pynn” and continues to reveal, in part, that consultations “are being guided by an experienced local consultant,” Alan Dolan and Associates, and that North Cowichan staff and consultants met with the Cowichan Nation Alliance on July 7.

 

“At that meeting, concerns were expressed around the need for consultations with First Nations to come early in the engagement process and a meeting was proposed between Mayor and Council….and the five chiefs of the Cowichan Nation Alliance.”

 

The draft reply adds that he “cannot speak for the Nations involved in the consultation process” and emphasized the sensitive nature of the government-to-government meetings.

 

“However, open and transparent communication are deeply important.”

 

The kicker? The draft reply was never sent to me. 

 

So much for transparency.

 

Note also that the documents show it is Siebring who urged that consultations with First Nations be private.

 

In a letter dated July 16, Siebring formally invited the Cowichan Nation Alliance to a consultation meeting at the earliest convenience, adding: “We ask that the meeting be closed to the public….”

 

The 60-day pause in the public consultation is about to expire. Council meets on Sept. 16. 

 

— Larry Pynn, Sept. 9, 2020

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